Update The City Council voted 8-0, with Tom DuBois absent, on Nov. 7 to support a plan for raising the speed limit on Deer Creek and East Bayshore roads and for lowering it near local schools.
In an effort to improve traffic safety near schools, Palo Alto officials are preparing to lower speed limits near 17 schools, even as it looks to raise it at two "collector" streets near busy arterials.
The shift, which the City Council is scheduled to approve on Tuesday, is part of a broader effort to readjust local speed limits to better reflect conditions on the ground and to make certain road segments eligible for radar enforcement.
The proposal also includes raising the speed limit from 35 mph to 40 mph on segments of Deer Creek Road and East Bayshore Road. Both roadways are classified as "collectors," which means they connect local streets to heavily traveled "arterials."
The change at Deer Creek and East Bayshore roads was sparked by recent traffic surveys that showed most commuters traveling at faster speeds here than the posted speed limit. To make them eligible for radar enforcement, the actual traveling speed would have to be increased to better match reality -- in this case, 40 mph.
The two roadways are among 14 segments throughout Palo Alto where actual traffic flow significantly deviates from the posted speed limit. However, many of the other segments are located near residential areas and the council showed little appetite last year for raising the speed limit in these areas.
Rather, it directed staff to create new "target speeds" for each segment -- goals that would be based on factors such as residential density, land uses and bike amenities. Rather than use radars and tinker with the speed limit, the city would try to get drivers to travel at target speeds through a combination of signs and design elements such as median islands and curb extensions, according to a new report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
Deer Creek and East Bayshore would be an exception to the rule. According to staff, each has an average daily traffic of about 5,000 vehicles and each is characterized by few driveways and cross streets. Planning staff is recommending increasing the speed limit to 40 mph at Deer Creek, between Arastradero Road and the city's western border, and on East Bayshore, between the Embarcadero Road overpass and Adobe Creek.
The new report points to studies showing that "most motorists will travel at a speed at which they feel comfortable, given the context and conditions."
"They will ignore a Posted Speed Limit that is set unrealistically low or high, leading to enforcement difficulty," the report states. "A Posted Speed Limit that matches the context and conditions is generally obeyed by a majority of motorists."
It's important to set realistic speed limits, the report states, to reduce the speed differential between motor vehicles.
"The accident rate is lower when the majority of motor vehicles are traveling at about the same speed and it improves overall compliance with traffic control devices."
While the speed limit on the two collector streets would go up, the reverse would be true near local schools. Currently, the city has a 25-mph speed limit within 500 feet of schools; the new proposal would stretch the radius to 1,000 feet.
At the same time, there would be a new 20 mph speed limit within 500 feet of school grounds on all residential streets that currently have speed limits of 30 mph or less, according to staff. Areas that would be affected by this change include Churchill Avenue and Embarcadero Road, near Palo Alto High School; Arastradero Road near Gunn High School; California Avenue and Middlefield Road, near Jordan Middle School; and East Meadow Drive, near JLS Middle School, as well as near the each of the city's 12 elementary schools.
The proposal somewhat deviates from the recommendation in a 2012 study that the city commissioned and that recommended a 15-mph speed limit within 500 feet of schools. The city's traffic engineers subsequently determined that a 20-mph speed limit "is more likely to achieving compliance, while still achieving the same safety benefits as a 15-mile-per-hour posted speed limit," the report states.
The 20-mph speed limit would only be in effect on school days, according to staff.
The plan does not include reduced speed limits near Palo Alto's private schools, that may change based on council feedback, according to the new staff report.